PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The city will begin a discussion on the role of police officers in the public school system.
The City Council had a lengthy conversation Tuesday on a petition put forward by Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Maffuccio in regard to filling the vacant resource officer position at Reid Middle School and agreed that the city needs to have a wider conversation about police officers in the classroom.
"That is a much bigger discussion that I think is worth having, and I do think that it will require a lot of community input and community engagement," Mayor Linda Tyer said. "I understand both sides of the issue and I understand the anxiety that staff and families have when there isn't a resource officer at Reid."
Tyer explained that the city has four resource officers: one at each high school and at Herberg and Reid Middle schools. She said the Reid resource officer resigned in December and took a job with the Berkshire County sheriff's office.
The petition asks that the city immediately fill this position which Tyer said had been done temporarily. Different patrol officers are rotating into the school until a proper resource officer with the right training can be placed in the school.
Tyer said there are staff issues in the department holding the city back from immediately making this appointment. She said that same month, four officers also resigned and transferred to different law enforcement agencies.
"Now we're in a position where we are a little short on our patrol side and so our ability to quickly fill vacancies and a resource officer at Reid is a little bit challenged," the mayor said.
She added that there are currently officers in the academy.
Before the meeting actually started, the agenda item drew the attention of residents who spoke during public comment for the opening half hour of the meeting.
Darren Turner thanked the administration for quickly getting an officer back in the classroom but asked for a more permanent arrangement.
"Things have gotten worse so we need to put our best foot forward for our children so the majority of our children feel safe in the school system," he said
Resident Steven White had similar things to say and handed over a petition with more than 800 signatures asking for a permanent solution at Reid.
On the opposite side of the fence, Susan Lord, who said she has a background in trauma and stress, told the council that in her experience, an officer in the school would not be a benefit. She advocated for specialists who are trained to work with kids.
"When you try to crack down on violence, often you create a situation that is exactly the opposite you start making people more afraid," she said. "I am imagining having a police officer ... is going to create a situation where people are either going to perceive that they are dangerous or in danger."
Eden Renee Hayes cited a study in which officers were shown pictures of boys of different races and asked how old they thought they were and how much force they thought they would need to use to restrain them.
She said the boys in the picture were all age 8 but that officers tended to think the black children were older and would require more force.
Resident Drew Herzog asked that if funds were to be expended that the city hire specialists with a trauma approach to behavioral issues instead of placing more duties on the Police Department.
The council was open to a larger discussion and Vice Chairman Peter White said he had an important relationship with the Taconic High resource officer when he was in high school.
"I am still in contact with him today and he is probably one of the closest officers I was able to have a relationship with and understand their job better," White said. "But let's use this discussion to create a situation that all the citizens of Pittsfield feel comfortable with."
White added that he thought these officers often act as mentors and help "humanize" them in the eyes of young people.
Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi agreed and was open to adjusting the position after a community discussion.
"I like the idea of having a community conversation I think that needs to happen and put it all out there to see what the best solutions are going forward," he said. "Resource officers are role models in the schools they are someone you can go and talk to."
Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon also was happy to have the conversation but wanted to make sure officers were not replacing mental health professionals in the schools.
"Sometimes they are forced to take on roles they are not trained to do," she said. "We can't expect them to replace our mental health clinicians and further upstream measures. We don't want to criminalize student behavior."
Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell asked about some other solutions and, to the mayor, if it was possible to use the Berkshire County sheriff's department as a resource. He also asked if it would be beneficial to hire a private security firm to fill the position.
Tyer said the city could consider these options but councilors spoke up against hiring a private firm believing it would not allow kids to foster a mentor relationship with an officer.
Councilor at Large Earl Persip asked Tyer for more information about the five resignations and the mayor said they were unexpected.
She said specifically the majority of the four officers transferred to other departments closer to their native communities and where they in most cases received a larger salary.
The city opened up the department positions to any state resident on the Civil Service list instead of just allowing residents to enter the department. She said although they were successful in hiring officers, it is often hard to maintain them.
Persip said he thought the city must have a conversation about Police Department salaries.
"I think it is maybe time to rethink the way we are paying our officers," he said. "We used to be on the higher end and we had people from the area who wanted the job."
The council ultimately agreed to send the petition to the Public Health and Safety Committee. The police chief and representatives from the school committee will also be invited.
In other business, the council sent a second petition from Maffuccio dealing with regulating solicitation from panhandlers to the city solicitor and the police chief instead of Ordinance & Rules.
Moon said she did not think it would be an easy task regulating where panhandlers can stand. She said in cases she has looked at it has been a violation of First Amendment rights.
City Solicitor Stephen Pagnotta agreed and said communities have only been able to regulate where panhandlers can stand if it is a safety concern.
"We would have to look at a new ordinance to see if it would pass muster," he said.
Safety was Maffuccio's concern and he was worried about both panhandlers and drivers who may be distracted by panhandlers.
Connell suggested first sending the item to the city solicitor so he can research it and draft an ordinance. White who is on Ordinance & Rules agreed.
"Having something in front of us would make this an easier discussion," he said.
The City Council sent a third petition from Maffuccio asking the city to explore ways to help shelter the homeless to the police chief, Public Health and Safety, and the Community Development Office to be considered for Community Development Block Grant funding.
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